Childrens Letters During the Great Depression
October 4, 2006 6:54 AM   Subscribe

During the Great Depression, thousands of young people wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for help. They asked for clothing, money, and other forms of assistance.
posted by jonson (20 comments total)
Powerful and still relevant to today.
posted by kmartino at 6:58 AM on October 4, 2006

Also interesting (from the same site) is this photo gallery of New Deal programs in action, although it takes a good amount of clicking before you get to the photos, and they are pretty small.
posted by jonson at 7:10 AM on October 4, 2006

If you're interested in begging letters, Born Losers includes a facinating discussion of this practice within the greater context of the concept of 'failure'. Nice find.
posted by allen.spaulding at 7:11 AM on October 4, 2006

Forgive my ignorance but, were these people really looking for "sympathy" or, were they actually looking for items that they were in desperate need of? I only read the first few and it seems like the secretaty to Mrs. Roosevelt merely replied as though "we hear ya". Kinda depressing. I guess my family gives quite a bit to United Way and other charities, (hell, we even have UW deduct from our checks). It just seems like they were being nice to people who needed way more than sympathy. Anyone feel free to clear up the significance of this "unanswered prayers" link. I don't get it.
posted by winks007 at 7:25 AM on October 4, 2006

You think she should have sent ten bucks to whoever asked for it? They were stinking rich, but money's not an infinite resource. Frankly I am surprised that they got replies at all, and sometimes within a week after the initial letter was sent.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:31 AM on October 4, 2006

This is very depressing.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 7:34 AM on October 4, 2006

Not necessarily, but if we knew someone whose only wish was a used dress, wouldn't you stop by the thrift-store on your way to the office to go out of your way to make someone happy "for the moment"? To give some....i dunno, "hope"? I guess? Don't for one moment think that I give to all beggars, i think there are different people than the guy with the beard sitting and the booze in front if RITE-AID asking for change. Could this be my own guilt for having come from that lifestyle. I feel bad for someone who is in a real need and when I say "real" need, i mean one that deem necessary. My donation is of course at my discretion. BTW, it's either you guys or a "real" therapist.
posted by winks007 at 7:41 AM on October 4, 2006

Related MeFi thread.
posted by Smart Dalek at 7:56 AM on October 4, 2006

Sure, winks, but what if you knew 50,000 people whose only wish as a used dress?
posted by LittleMissCranky at 8:30 AM on October 4, 2006

Sure, winks, but what if you knew 50,000 people whose only wish as a used dress?posted by LittleMissCranky

Well, at least now you only know 49,999 of them!

Not saying it's an easy question for a moment.

Just saying that it's easy to be overwhelmed into inactivity and I'm not sure that gets us very far at all.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:40 AM on October 4, 2006

None of the children in this story received personal replies from Eleanor Roosevelt. She gave her support to them in a different way: by working to establish government programs for young people. The National Youth Administration (NYA) and the youth-oriented programs of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) are two examples.
posted by stray at 8:50 AM on October 4, 2006

Little Ms Cranky, has a point, the sheer number of requests must be staggering. I can also imagine being "overwhelmed into inactivity. That also sheds some light on the plight as well. Still, I'd be willing to bet that most of us mefites would be willing and that is what humanitarianism is about, doing what you can do to help those less fortunate. Jonmc, what is your take on the above?
posted by winks007 at 8:57 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

There is often a tension between humanitarianism and development. As hard as it may have been to turn away the needy, the world needed Eleanor Roosevelt to help lay the groundwork for a society where there would be fewer despondants. Had she spent all of her time and resources in this humanitarian manner, we all would have been worse off for it.
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:16 AM on October 4, 2006

Dear Poor Person,
You're much better off in that breadline than you were living at your house. Also, the Depression will just be a comma in history.
Eleanor and Franklin

Oops, sorry, wrong First Family.

Seriously, I wonder if writing a personal-type letter to the White House was much more common in the past. (I've run across references in fiction to people writing to the Roosevelts in particular.)
Do people still write these types of things, but just in e-mails or faxes?
Does the type of correspondence wax and wane depending upon the occupants of 1600?
I can see telling my heartbreaking personal stories to Democrats. In fact, I think I have mentioned job and health insurance woes to senators.
But I can't see the Reagans or Bushes giving a flying frick about the likes of me, so it seems wasted breath. (In fact, what I'd like to say to Bush would probably get me a visit from the Secret Service.)
posted by NorthernLite at 10:10 AM on October 4, 2006

"I am in need of dresses & slips and a coat very bad. If you have any soiled clothes that you don't want to ware I would be very glad to get them. But please do not let the news paper reporters get hold of this in any way and I will keep it from geting out here so there will be no one else to get hold of it. But do not let my name get out in the paper. I am thirteen years old" - Miss L. H.
Heartbreaking. I can't decide what is more depressing. The fact that she didn't have any clothes to wear or her completely innocent childlike belief that she will get those clothes considering that she is so insistent on not letting it out to others.
posted by forwebsites at 10:34 AM on October 4, 2006

But I can't see the Reagans ... giving a flying frick about the likes of me,
posted by NorthernLite at 10:10 AM PST

Ronny (from what I understood) used to write out checks on occation to help out the down trodden.

I'm sure someone could provide a citation.
posted by rough ashlar at 10:54 AM on October 4, 2006

I'm fighting tears here, perhaps because both of my parents grew up during the Depression. Mom's family was poor, and she had polio, Dad's family lost all their money (they'd had a good bit) and their home.

Needless to say, I grew up hearing about the Depression, and how wonderful Eleanor Roosevelt was, and how she understood how to help.

25% of adults were unemployed. Unless you grew up in Flint or Detroit in the 70's (as I did), I don't think most USians have any clue just what that means. Sending out clothes or checks to those kids would not have helped a bit. There were too many people in need. She could have given away every penny she had, and it wouldn't have put a dent in the issue. And then she'd have been on a breadline herself.

She did what she could, helping to start programs that got people jobs and saved not only their lives but their dignity. This is the difference between a little charity to quiet your own guilt, and being effective.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a great woman. Great enough to do something that worked rather than take the easy way out.
posted by QIbHom at 12:55 PM on October 4, 2006

Well, at least now you only know 49,999 of them!...Just saying that it's easy to be overwhelmed into inactivity and I'm not sure that gets us very far at all.

Yes, and there's nothing to say that Eleanor Roosevelt didn't provide a little personal assistance for individuals, just that she didn't do so in these cases, which while admittedly heart-tugging, were a handful in a sea of probably tens of thousands.

It's ridiculous to extrapolate a polite denial of money for a Shirley Temple doll or dress in the midst of the Depression into being "overwhelmed into inactivity." We are talking about the woman who devoted the bulk of her life to social reform and who was arguably the most effective first lady in history in terms of using her position to truly improve the plight of the poor.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 1:05 PM on October 4, 2006

maybe a band-aid is not a cure. Still.....heartbreaking.
Lilmscranky, thanks.
posted by winks007 at 4:16 PM on October 4, 2006

Someone's probably going to dislike this comparison, but it reminds me of Hugo Chavez and his weekly TV show, where people call in to talk to him. A lot of them ask him for things, like a few sacks of cement so they can expand their house, or whatever. I don't think he actually sends that stuff out, but he talks to them, and they seem satisfied.

This kind of thing seems to be a side-effect of being the leader of a country (or the wife of the leader of a country, as it were) who's actually trying to make things better for the poor. I'm not sure any of the people asking actually expect to receive, they just want their voices to be heard by the only person in power they know who actually seems to care about them.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:07 PM on October 4, 2006

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